Is it time to sound the alarm at Roush-Fenway?
With NASCAR's third race in the books at Las Vegas, a Ford finally found victory lane as Brad Keselowski took advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr falling just shy on fuel. Keselowski's win was no surprise as the Blue Deuce has been stout all weekend. Teammate Logano started on the pole and finished fourth. So clearly the Ford Fusion has some speed under the hood. That being the case, just where in the world is Roush Fenway Racing? Carl Edwards was the team's lone representative inside the top 20 and all three cars were non-factors throughout the afternoon. With their off performance in 2013 fresh in everyone's mind, is it time to sound the alarm at RFR?
Brad Keselowski grabs Ford's first win of 2014 at Las Vegas
2013 was not a banner year for the blue oval group. While Carl Edwards finished the regular season in first place and three Ford drivers made the Chase, none were anything approaching a title threat. Joey Logano was the highest finishing Ford driver, landing eighth in series points. Defending series champion Keselowski didn't even make the Chase in his first year as a Ford driver (although he did bring home their lone Chase win at Charlotte).
Much was made of Ford's initial release of their “Gen 6” car. They were the first manufacturer to finalize their body template and as a result, gained the largest amount of publicity around its unveiling. But doing so also enabled Chevy and Toyota to maximize their own body templates prior to submission to NASCAR, and many in the Ford camp felt at an aerodynamic disadvantage. Jack Roush admitted that his operation focused its efforts on other areas, not knowing that NASCAR would allow some aero flexibility.
Another factor in Ford's struggles in 2013 came from integrating Roger Penske's two car team, which included Keselowski's attempt to defend his championship. For years, RFR has been the dominant force on the Ford block and the team largely responsible for the manufacturer's success. Penske as a team was accustomed to producing its own engines and to being an integral part of a manufacturer's plans (Dodge, until 2013). So there were bound to be some growing pains for all involved. Yet to have Keselowski miss the playoffs and to watch Toyota and Chevy pull ever further away had to be galling for the Ford teams.
2014 was supposed to be different. For one, NASCAR permitted Ford to make some minor aerodynamic adjustments to their templates. Second, the engineering teams involved would have a full year's worth of data on the Gen 6 car, allowing them to finally reach a level playing field as compared to the other groups. Finally, with a full year under their belts, the thought was that RFR and Penske would maximize their ability to work together. The worst of the growing pains would be in the past and both teams would benefit from gains made at a single outfit.
Yet the expected gains haven't been there, at least for RFR. Aside from Edwards fifth place run (which came as a result of smart pit strategy as opposed to any particular speed on the track), the highest ranked RFR car at Vegas was Greg Biffle in 22nd place. A week ago in Phoenix it was Edwards in eighth, Biffle 17th and Stenhouse Jr. 18th- a tough pill to swallow considering Cousin Carl won there a year ago. The opener at Daytona saw Biffle and Stenhouse make the top ten but those finishes had an aura of survival, not speed about them.
What's all the more puzzling is that Penske Racing has seen dramatic improvement this season. Keselowski's win was just the latest example of speed for the two car team. He finished third after starting on the pole at Phoenix. Joey Logano had his second straight fourth place finish in Vegas and both drivers have led laps and been near the front of the field. Moreover, Penske appears to have figured out the new knockout-style qualifying format ahead of the field, placing its cars on the pole in consecutive weeks. If the issue truly was a result of manufacturer or engine short-fall (both RFR and Penske use Roush-Yates engines), then why is Penske doing so well and Roush so poorly?
The problem likely isn't a driver talent issue either. It was only 2011 when Edwards tied Tony Stewart for first place in series points. Biffle has won championships at both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide levels. And Stenhouse, while only in his second Sprint Cup season, has a pair of Nationwide championships under his belt. Not to mention the fact that Matt Kenseth, after several average years at RFR, won seven races and nearly won a title last year by leaving the team for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Finally, the team as a whole is still capable of fielding a car as good as anyone else on the circuit. Stenhouse didn't win those two Nationwide titles on driving skill alone; he had a car that outclassed the Nationwide regulars. Carl Edwards proved that during Ricky's first title run- he drove another RFR Nationwide entry to eight wins and 23 top five finishes in 33 races during the 2011 season. While it may not be the Sprint Cup, RFR success on the tier two level shows this is a team that can get every detail right in building a championship outfit.
The only possible conclusion is that there's something deeper wrong when it comes to the Sprint Cup operations at RFR. There's no way to know from the outside just what the problem is; all of the simplest explanations have gone out the window with Penske's success. That team is running the same engines under the same hood and they're at the front of the field; there's no acceptable reason that Roush Fenway isn't doing likewise.
It's entirely possible that years of running partially funded cars with a myriad of different sponsors have finally caught up with the NASCAR team. Penske has two primary sponsors in Miller Lite and Shell/Pennzoil that are with the team throughout the year; Edwards alone has more primary sponsors in 2013 than Penske has in the last two years combined. Without a long term, season-long partner, RFR expends significant resources courting and keeping potential sponsors. That's money Penske and others can plow directly into research and development, giving them a real advantage on the track.
Before they left; get your Matt Kenseth #17 DeWalt tools diecast
It's been an issue for the team dating back to Kenseth's stay, where his #17 went unsponsored on a regular basis. Matt drove a DeWalt tools sponsored car for years but when the company took its dollars elsewhere after the 2009 season, RFR was unable to find a company to fully pick up the slack. Instead, Kenseth had a host of sponsors who were with the team for a handful of races- and sometimes no sponsor at all. Despite being a former series champion who regularly won races and made the Chase, RFR could not get a deal done for Kenseth's car. Some thought that Matt's vanilla reputation was to blame- another explanation that went out the window when Home Depot and Dollar General gladly filled the space on Kenseth's JGR ride last season.
If RFR is unable to effectively support their current lineup, they may ultimately have no choice but to contract once again. It's something the team has done twice before- first in going from five to four teams to get under a NASCAR-mandated rule, then again in 2012 when RFR was unable to find sponsorship to run its iconic #6 on a full time basis. Certainly the team's policy of a rotating door of sponsors isn't by preference. Perhaps cutting back to two cars would better position the team to rebuild from the ground up. Or it might send the exact opposite signal to potential sponsors, that RFR is a sinking ship and the wrong place to spend your advertising dollars.
It's still far too early to draw any firm conclusions as to the fate of Roush Fenway Racing. Edwards in particular is the kind of driver who can run off a string of victories during the course of a season and both Biffle and Stenhouse have multiple points championship trophies on their mantles at home. But while it's too early to draw conclusions, it's certainly not too early to start asking the questions. Chevrolet is once again at the top of the pile. Penske is off to a hot start for Ford. Gibbs, while winless so far, hasn't been short of speed and they will win their share in 2014. But will RFR? The alarm may not be ringing but a finger is definitely on the button.